Summer in Arkansas can be rough! It’s too hot and muggy to hike or backpack and the streams are too dry to float. What’s an outdoors person to do for fun during the summer months? Head for the islands! Lake Ouachita Islands, where you can paddle your kayak and camp under the stars even in the summer because relief from the blistering heat and humidity is just a short distance away with a refreshing plunge in the lake’s cooling waters.
Several years ago, during a sweltering and dry July, I longed to get outdoors. Even if nothing more than just spending a night in my tent. In desperation, I was looking at the map to see if I could plot a backpack route that would include reliable drinking water sources when I received a message from a friend inviting me to join her for a camping trip on the islands of Lake Ouachita. I felt like someone had thrown me a lifeline in a sea of summer doldrums.
At the time, I wasn’t aware you could camp on the lake’s islands. Lake Ouachita is the only Corps of Engineers Lake in Arkansas where it is allowed. Free dispersed camping is permitted since the islands reside within the Ouachita National Forest.
Lake Ouachita is the largest lake in Arkansas, offering over 40,000 acres of surface area and almost 700 miles of undeveloped shoreline. It was an entirely new wilderness area for me to explore. Rather than trekking about on foot, I explored this pristine natural environment in a kayak.
There are a variety of locations along the shores to launch a boat. We chose to access the water from the lake’s north shore. Most commercial boat docks are on the south shore, and with us using non-motorized kayaks and canoes, we preferred to avoid the wakes of the motorized boats. Buckville Recreation Area is a favorite launch site. It includes a boat ramp as well as primitive camping.
We put seven kayaks and one canoe into the clear waters of the small inlet. Our flotilla of brightly colored vessels silently began inching toward the mouth of the bay and the open waters of Lake Ouachita. Immediately upon dipping my paddle into the glistening waters, a gentle calm settled over me.
Our first goal was to locate an island to set up camp for the weekend, but no one was in a hurry. Everyone was content to be in the moment, simply enjoying their surroundings. One of the kayaks spooked a great blue heron. I had a front-row seat as the lanky bird leaped into the air, tucked its long legs into its chest, and spread its wings, gliding gracefully across the bow of my kayak.
We arrived at one of the campsite locations and discovered a pontoon boat anchored just offshore. Kids jumped off the upper boat deck, and adults lounged on the beach. They had created an incredible lakeside retreat for a weekend getaway.
The search for our home away from home continued. With over 200 islands in the lake, we were not worried about finding another location to camp. We approached another island and climbed out of our boats to explore. There was a thick stand of trees for shade, a clearing for the fire ring, and a lovely swimming beach. Before exiting my kayak, I picked out a shady spot along the shoreline for my tent site. We unanimously decided this was the perfect location.
After setting up our tents and hammocks, we gathered on the island’s north beach. Balancing on a floatie and cold adult beverage in hand, we lazily drifted about as we worked out the next day’s agenda. We all agreed that island exploration was at the top of our list of activities.
There was one place I had been interested in visiting on Lake Ouachita called Bird Island. The island is Arkansas’ largest known purple martin roost, hosting 8,000 to 50,000 birds during late July and early August. The National Audubon Society has designated the island an “Important Bird Area” because of its strategic location on the bird’s annual migration en route to South America. The view of thousands of these birds approaching or leaving their roost on Bird Island would be a beautiful site to experience. We ended the evening with a potluck dinner. I crawled into my tent for the best night’s sleep since I last camped out.
Over thirty years of camping experience paid off when I opened my eyes the following morning, peering out of my tent to view the first light of day peeking over the distant Ouachita Mountain tops. I set up my camp stove, heated a pot of water, then leisurely lay on my sleeping pad. Sipping a cup of hot chai tea, I witnessed the delicate blue morning sky giving way to the bright morning sun.
Following breakfast, everyone was eager to get their boats in the water and explore the neighboring islands. The closest island was small, only trim shrubbery covered its surface, so we scoped it out from the seat of our boats. We decided to paddle onward to a more intriguing destination.
After passing on several other islands, we found one that piqued our interest. Pulling our boats ashore, we began hiking about the island, exploring and comparing its features to where we had set up camp. This one was smaller and didn’t feature the tall trees we had on our island. However, fewer trees offered an encompassing 360-degree view, which was nice. Plus, prior visitors had built a makeshift stone table, which would be helpful in meal preparations. We made a mental note of the island for future reference.
There was another island just across the cove with a unique rocky shoreline. Being only a short distance away and with temperatures rising, we decided to secure our boats and swim across the bay.
The rock ledges were the result of a quartz uplift. After the Army Corps of Engineers created the lake, water washed away the topsoil exposing blunt rock slabs and several layers of colorful orange, yellow, and brown quartz. The formation continued into the water providing shelter for small fish.
With Lake Ouachita consistently being ranked as one of the cleanest lakes in the nation, it was a great place to snorkel and observe life underwater. As the sun descended in the west, we decided to save Bird Island for a future adventure. We paddled back to home base in time to prepare a cool beverage and settle in on our island’s shore to witness Mother Nature’s end-of-day celebration. Yes, it’s true – life is good in the Natural State.
Arkansas’ largest lake, Lake Ouachita, offers 40,000 acres of clear, clean water surrounded by the scenic Ouachita National Forest, where you can enjoy swimming, skiing, scuba diving, boating, kayaking, and fishing. Choose from a wide variety of day-use areas and overnight accommodations. The park has 93 campsites, some right on the water. There are eight fully equipped cabins with kitchens and the comforts of home, most of them overlooking the lake. Four camper cabins are an affordable option right in the campground. A bathhouse is nearby. Bring your linens, coolers, and cooking supplies. They are also dog-friendly! The state park is near Hot Springs and Hot Springs Village. Lake Ouachita State Park offers rentals and tours for those needing a kayak or canoe. Call 501.767.9366 for details and reservations.